‘I think I know that smile’
by Lisa Gorton
Published August 2022
If extraordinary things (‘mirabilia’) attract our attention and interest us, it seems inevitable that our perceptions will either occlude or indulge complexities that aren’t obvious, that are correlatives of loss or damage. And part of the poet’s task is to illuminate and possibly contest these subtextual correlatives. In Lisa Gorton’s new collection of poetry, Mirabilia, this is certainly the case — in fact, it is a book of contesting ways of seeing and manners around expression. Visual art can be extraordinary, but its making can so easily have hidden negative consequences. Poetry can give with one line and take with the next. Gorton has worked to create a poetry that critiques its own presence as art, that asks difficult questions about its processes, and analyses the way language has been used to arrive at ‘the poem’.
Is this a crisis of aesthetics or a reconfiguration of aesthetics? The ‘beautiful’ suffers, the ‘beautiful’ is exploited, and the ‘beautiful’ is not for consumption. These are also formal concerns for Gorton, and something as subtle as a repeated epithet can qualify a re-examination of subject matter. Her poems require sophisticated architectural skill to construct.
Mirabilia is like an extended cento, but not one made up of quotes worked into poetic form. Rather it is a cento, one in which the poet is in dialogue with many other writers, especially historical sources pertaining to Renaissance Italian art as exemplified through Cellini and Leonardo da Vinci, and especially as pertains to their relationships to their muses and models (and in Cellini’s case, his violence).
Quoted material functions in a variety of ways across the book, and across the great technical and thematic differences between the book’s sections. It works in diverse ways: as heteroglossia, as overt dialogue, as emphasis within a point being made in the run of the poem, and as ‘proof’ or reference. Quotes are also adapted, even distorted, to shift meaning, and context sometimes becomes a route for conjecture: was Fiorette del Cittadino da Vinci’s mode for The Benois Madonna? Through these dialogues within poems we escape the ‘ekphrastic’ (which is ironised as a mannerism or process in Gorton’s work on art), and we escape the historical (patriarchal) narrative, and we give art back to its sources. This is an aesthetic act, and Gorton is a poet of aesthetics, or maybe more accurately, a poet contesting the patriarchy of aesthetics.
What I mean by this is that in this collection Gorton interprets the iniquities of the world through the lies of ‘beauty’. The messages ‘great’ male art gives us about mothers, responsibility, divinity, and reassurance for the male going into the world (rites of passage) are arranged to define beauty in a context of such control. Gorton is taking this aesthetics and realigning it, possibly turning it into a system of analysis that can reassess the created image through the light of exploitation and its consequences. Much of this is inflected in Gorton’s prosody. Syllabics, lines balanced and sculpted, lines built around a documentary voice that is concrete and patterned. Language is about meaning, about edges and structure. Of this book of reclaiming, it seems vital to note that Mirabilia is dedicated to Gorton’s mother.
The title poem ‘Mirabilia’ is about the pangolin, and partly mirrors and dialogues with Marianne Moore’s sculpted lines and accruing of comparatives in her poem ‘The Pangolin’. However, there is a fundamental difference between Gorton’s ‘relationship’ with the pangolin and Moore’s — though there’s a similar telling, sharing, involvement tempered by ascetic distancing at work, Gorton uses ‘information’ to convey an ecologically imperative (and anti-colonial) story in a way Moore ultimately can’t due to her aesthetic compromises. Gorton’s poem doesn’t operate as a series of metonyms that speak ultimately to human experience, but rather highlights the threat from humanity to the ‘extraordinary’. This makes for a very different and ultimately anti-empirical (data) and post-aesthetic stance. Moore’s poem creates a wondrous construction of human creative ingenuity through using (and, it has to be said, admiring and valorising) the animal, whereas Gorton’s critiques the way ‘nature’ is fetishised as art. This is not to say that Moore doesn’t also see the threat of humanity to the animal (‘…which man/ in all his vileness cannot/ set aside’), but rather that her mode of aestheticising actually risks diminishing the quiddity of nature.
Gorton celebrates the animal and laments its suffering at human hands, but in considering the pangolin as subject through poetry she is aware that she is shaping our response. As the pangolin rolls to protect itself, so does the poem (an unravelling but highly shaped and formed poem), and as we learn early on in the poem, and as reiterated at its end, ‘’its only predator is man’. Though both Moore and Gorton have absorbed empirical data into the making of their poems (observational facts of the pangolin rendered as metaphor), Gorton has foregrounded the distance between ‘information’ (about the pangolin), and the motive for rendering animal as poem. It’s a gap that Gorton is critiquing.
In this context, it is worth comparing the openings of the Moore and Gorton poems:
Another armoured animal—scale
lapping scale with spruce-cone regu-
larity until they
form the uniterrupted central
tail-row. This near artichokeMarianne Moore, ‘The Pangolin’.
It is its
own order—scaled mammal that can
spiral itself in
armour safe in the lion’s jaws—
it is toothless, its
belly is naked,
its only predator is man—Lisa Gorton, ‘Mirabilia’.
Both openings impart information about the animal. Both establish a way of ordering and processing that information (syllabics is efficient ordering). Both rely on mathematical precision (in syllabics, in form and shape). However, the immediacy of Gorton’s language, its pared-back quick to the point about ‘it’s only predator is man’ (in fact, pangolin armour can be ‘breeched’ by lions, leopards and hyenas), redistributes information such that the emphasis is on consequence rather than the aesthetic wonder of the animal (and this the irony of the poems’ title). There is nothing funny about Gorton’s poem, though you might expect a ‘zoo visitor’ to laugh at a pangolin being ‘like’ an ‘artichoke’, as Moore prompts.
Recounting, reporting and telling involves references to historical (colonial) abuses and intrusions, and this is almost the raison d’être of Gorton’s work: echoes of culpability that reify through evidence which in this collection takes the form of processing of textual knowledge, and often as literal quotation. But a quote rendered in syllabics and/or with judicious line-breaks, changes meaning. Gorton’s is a work of recontextualising knowledge.
Concomitant with Gorton’s syllabics is her use of the dash which functions as both pause, as a fallen slash, as a brink, as a link, and as a staccato effect. It has many different uses through the book, but maybe what it represents universally is a binding tool, a paradox of break and continuation, of connection and loss. In the sculpturing of these works, in their stepping and scaffolding of and within the page, the dashes add superstructure and work as both grammar and physical materials. I was reminded at times of trees, easels, horizons, cliffs, water, sky, paths, diving boards and concrete slabs. This is a commitment to knowledge and its architectures, to a poetry that works as essay, as documentation, as story, as investigation, and as process, this materiality of form is significant as a guide to reading.
In her poems on art and artists, poems that are really about the essential art that has been hidden from the viewer because we are trained to see what’s represented as a truth in the context of the painting, and not the context of the lives that went into its making (and that means the artist, of course, as well as muse, models, assistants, teachers etc), Gorton allows herself moments of subjective summarising, and in this she is razor sharp. Try this line: ‘Their Botticelli’s bloodless glamour—‘ in ‘Medussa’s Mask’. And for a poem of sculptural balance whose shape contributes to an understanding that trauma and beauty cannot be ‘balanced’ or reconciled, try ‘Ekphrasis. The Nymph of Fontainebleau’ with its deadly switching of voices from the sculptor Benvenuto Cellini (as mediated through biographical text) to catalogue art analysis. Gorton shows the slippage between brutal, misogynistic reality and aesthetic perception — the quotes from other texts are not ‘found’ but exposed like a photographic plate.
In many ways, and certainly in the context of the back cover blurb which delineates a particular way of reading, we might read this book as a commentary on the exploitation of women, especially mothers (even ‘Madonnas’), by the mechanisms of male creativity and fame. The entangling of the operations of patriarchy with the ‘fruits’ of imagination is necessarily built on the muse, model, and mother.
The three sections of Gorton’s book are entitled ‘Muse’, ‘Tongue’, and ‘Great World Atlas’, and the first two at least suggest embodiments of inspiration and articulation. And they are. But the third section, which is a series of prose poems created around Izabela Pluta’s artworks ‘drawing on a series of darkroom contact prints titled Spatial Misalignments, conceived by shining light through the pages of three long-out-of-print editions of Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas’, is an expression of world-body that has been abused by nuclear testing.
This world body is not ‘female’, but the sequence opens with the movement of a woman across a set-piece, a still life of measuring and observation in which shadows of nature blur with the shadow of the woman until the link is broken; this sets up a dynamic of assessing what follows in gendered terms. Gorton’s is a feminist poetics.
As we are submerged in the ‘zone’ of this cycle (Tarkovsky haunted me during my first reading), we are implicated with the woman who reads, then moves, then turns ‘landscapes over in her hands’ while ‘Overhead, invisibly from below, a map is forming’ until we resolve in the perspective of distance. The abuse by the military, governments, and scientists of the earth-body might primarily align with the patriarchy, but it’s even more involved than that — we are all implicated in the trauma.
However, the perpetrators of these crimes are ‘they’, and that ‘they’ is/are all those of any nation who have exploded/tested nuclear weapons. We trace the fallout, the glibness, the accolades those perpetrators receive. The specificities of each place traumatised by these weapons is blurred into a landscape where lagoon and desert become one, where a kind of erasure of identities is enacted. That distancing ‘manner’ (Gorton plays with conventions of ‘manners’ in much of her work — maybe working out of Elizabethan flexibility in spelling and syntax to arrive at a mode of delivery that is so precise, exact and still highly allusive) is at its ultimate in the ‘Great World Atlas’ section. In ‘The Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas 1968’ we read, ‘In the year of its second edition animals had cleaned the/ skeletons of the four dogs they shot and left in the bomb/ crater at Marcoo—‘and ‘In the year of its third edition they exploded the bomb/ they called Dragon from a balloon over the Fregate Zone’ — creating a sense of bizarre tonal inoculation that would seem to ascerbicly and ironically ‘subscribe’ to the ‘Reader’s Digest’ approach to making the world pleasantly absorbable.
It might seem like an almost casual irony, but it is not: it is frighteningly controlled and sculpted, and builds such horror through its almost benign mode of recounting and telling, that it becomes the cautionary tale that cannot be untold once heard:
year of its second edition President Johnston promised the
Bikinians they could return to their atoll—who had been
exiled on Rongerik Atoll, on Kwajalein Atoll, on Kili Island,
on Ejit—In the years of its second edition they said, ‘There’s
virtually no radiation left and we can find no discernible
effect on either plant or animal life’—the jellyfish babies,
boneless, with transparent skin, the stillborn babies, their
skin like a bunch of purple grapes— In the year of the second
edition‘The Reader’s Digest Great World Atlas’ 1968.
From this we get a real sense of Gorton’s purpose — the language we use in daily missives, in news reports, in official documents is potentially so deadly because it seeks to submerge horror and make it tolerable, even palatable. And ‘history’ would seem to remove us from deep truths that continue to affect us. Gorton’s use of ‘history’ and its texts is to challenge the now.
And this is what makes her use of quoted material intrinsically poetic, and activist: it exposes the source material for what it is by shifting context, but more than that, her work show how all language is vulnerable to such misuse and abuse, and that poetry is a lens of scrutiny in which we contest our own speech. Also note in these lines the use of the dashes to scaffold what is really collapsing in terms of meaning into trauma — the dashes are ironic and they are needed to support the irresolvable paradox of the same words being used in different ways, with different intentions, and with different outcomes,.
A poem I know well from its earliest publication in the Australian Book Review, ‘On the Characteristics of Male Poets’ Mothers’, deserves special mention. Again, using her quoted material technique (this time Wikipedia), Gorton undoes that myth of the male creative and their springing from the heads of Zeus (uber male god), by showing the invention of the poet relying on the trashing of the female. The mother is maligned, diminished and mocked by the public (and often by the son), but made good use of by the male poet in all cases. Gorton pivots ‘her’ voice in that almost abstracted but demi-scientific way, analysing popular purveyances of ‘biography’. Such misogyny does hoist itself on its own petard, but Gorton supplies the scaffolding and allows us to examine our own modes of reading as we climb up and look down. Consider the reflexive irony and pathos of the last line of part III which resurrects Rimbaud’s mother: ‘In 1890, a photo—she stands in her garden with flowers—‘ That last dash takes us everywhere, and nowhere. It is an aesthetic act, and an anti-aesthetic one, too.
The moral failure of aesthetics is a subtext of ‘The Book Of Revelations’, a poem in which the erasures of the colonial artist, Sidney Nolan, are played out against the attempted erasures of people and their country. Country is disembodied through the corroded features of drought-stricken carcasses of settler introduced animals, the exploitations of Vestey Station ‘where families living on the dry river bed/ got paid in tins of jam’, and in the erasure of the female mouth (of Daisy Bates, who is a problematical colonial as well), as manipulated by ‘the artist’. So maybe the intertextual quotes of Nolan and the King James version of the Book of Revelations in this poem truly exemplify Gorton’s position re disclaiming and allowing for those who have been exploited to claim their own back:
The artist moved their skulls and bones about—
stacked carcasses one on another—
set one on its back with its legs in the air—
propped the dead horse on its hind legs with its
mouth in the dust.
I think I know that smile.Lisa Gorton, ‘The Book of Revelations’.
And so much of this is about false, ironic and lost smiles, and as we read in ‘Tongue’ on da Vinci’s ‘Madonna of Flowers’: ‘The tongue/ in its dark laps air…’ Articulation might be obfuscated, but it can also be rescued. A hint about this is given in the quote from Brecht which opens the book: ‘What does it mean to say/ We said something?’ In Mirabilia it means never giving end, holding to account, and finding the extraordinary in the shadows, and bringing it to light. It means never holding your tongue in the face of male aesthetic oppression.